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Reel, Royalty, & Real Estate--- Deepesh Salgia, Director, Shapoorji Pallonji Real Estate

It is not the legal documents that drive long partnerships, it is the silent compromises that define the spirit of partnership writes Deepesh Salgia.

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A young lad in mid 20s bubbling with ideas but with no past achievements. And a construction baron in his 60s - with bountiful of money and experience. 

The above could be a very common Founder & VC story of startups of today. But this a story of 1940s and 1950s - when partnerships was always among equals. 

K Asif was an Urdu speaking Muslim from Punjab. Seth Shapoorji Pallonji Mistry, was a Parsi from Mumbai.  So if Bambaiya Hindi was the only mode of communication, their partnership too was uncharacteristic, it was born out of a mammoth alienation - the Partition of India. With this backdrop, the two partners worked together for more than a decade to make one of the biggest works of art from India during the twentieth Century. 

The seeds of the partnership were sown with the original producer of Mughal-e-Azam, Shiraz Ali’s decision to shift to Pakistan after the partition.  Asif started meeting various financiers to take over the under-production film from Shiraz Ali. 

During one such legendary meetings, Asif had finished five pegs and still had not discussed the film’s script.  The puzzled financer asked, “Arre Asif tumne paanch peg pee liye aur abhi tak film ki script shuru nahin ki." Asif immediately left the room and later told the arranger of the meeting “jo peg ginta ho, woh Mughal-e-Azam nahin bana sakta…!” ( one who counts peg cannot make Mughal-e-Azam )

Meanwhile, Shiraz Ali owed money to Shapoorji towards the construction of his Famous Studio (Mahalaxmi). So, Shiraz Ali suggested Asif to meet Shapoorji since he had decided to settle Shapoorji’s construction dues against the rights in the under-production Mughal-e-Azam

Shapoorji, had by then made huge monies in construction, real estate, sugar, textiles et al.  And this wealth was in addition to his partnership in the Tata group. In Mughal-e-Azam, Shapoorji saw a gateway to his unconquered bastion - the making of a great work of art.

During their several meetings, Shapoorji and Asif realized that to achieve their shared vision, the under-production Mughal-e-Azam will have to morphed into a new avatar - a film at a much larger canvas. With a promise from Asif to make a film that would befit Shapoorji’s unfulfilled agenda, Shapoorji agreed to fund the new Mughal-e-Azam.

Shelving the under-production film meant Shapoorji’s unpaid dues as from Famous Studio were now already down the drain. He was now looking at the sunk cost as the cost of acquisition of a visionary idea. Asif was now convinced that his search for the ‘non-peg counting financier’ was over.

Shoot commenced in early 50s but with the production canvas involving war scenes with 2,000 camels, 4000 horses and 8000 Indian military men, costs continuously kept on increasing. By 1956-57, the budget had already quadrupled. Asif now suggested  shooting the Sheeshmahal  sequence in colour, pushing the cost to six times the original cost.  

It was often believed that at every stage Asif had fooled Shapoorji into investing larger sums. However, what went unnoticed was the tacit communication between Asif and Shapoorji. During every budgetary revision. Asif would, through his unspoken communication,  acknowledge that he was under a moral obligation to return every money that he took. For people Shapoorji’s stature, moral commitment weighed far more than written documents.

But in 1957, with Pakistan banning release of Indian films, 25% of projected business was also lost. Accordingly, trade experts suggested Shapoorji to shoot the sheeshmahal in B&W and recover whatever was possible. 

While the trade saw a red bottomline in the colour sequence, Shapoorji, in it, would see the countless colours of Sheeshmahal through the eyes of Asif.

As luck would have it, Sheshmahal sequence became the star attraction during the pre-promotion meets.  Not known to many, in the original screenplay, the Sheeshamahal sequence was immediately after interval (the first part would then end with Saleem slapping Anarkali, post their split).  

Asif realized that if the sheeshmahal sequence was shifted before the interval, audience will come out in the interval, completely mesmerized and will talk only of the colour sequence of sheeshmahal. And it was only such a huge positive word of mouth publicity that would generate business enough to recover Shapoorji’s investment.

But such a big change also meant, a big creative compromise, something that a great film maker would loathe to do. However, sacrifices and trusts are what make partnerships last.  This time, it was Asif’s turn to sacrifice. The colour Sheeshsmahal sequence was shifted before interval

If intentions are good, so are the results. Shapoorji’s Rs 1.5 crore investment grossed Rs 5.5 crore then or about Rs 2000 cr in today’s terms, making Mughal-e-Azam, an all-time top grosser in the box-office. Shapoorji made his money but the creator’s desire to see the full film in colour remained unfulfilled. 

2004: The next generation of Mistry family, had neither forgotten Asif’s sacrifice nor his unfulfilled desire. As a mark of respect to the creator’s vision, the next generation undertook a massive project to restore and colourise 300,000 frames and re-released the full film in colour. The colour version too ran for 25 weeks in cinema halls. Good intentions again paid back, not just once, not twice but even the third time when in 2106, the family produced a musical play based on the film  

I always wonder, had Shapoorji not decided to do the sheeshmahal in colour,  would Mughal-e-Azam still have been so big?

Another big question that perplexes me is, with only a raw Bambaiya Hindi as the bridge, how did Asif and Shapoorji communicate on a subject as complex as art…..Hmmm… maybe when great men decide to communicate, language ceases to be a barrier.

The journey that two men had travelled would always be remembered in the world of cinema, in the world of art and in the world of human relationships. Shakeel Badyuni, the lyricist of Mughal-e-Azam, possibly saw this and penned, “Mar jaate hain aashiq, zinda reh jaati hai yaad, zindabaad zindabad,..,..!”.


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